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"Summer Of Love"

I do not get into modern women's pictures. "Divine Yawn-Yawn Sisterhoods," all those creaky bridges of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner drippy sagas strain my cataracts. So it shocked me to adore the remarkable "The Notebook," the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks bestseller. I devoured every minute of the timeless love story from its peach and apricots-coated opening to the parallel storylines of two couples. "The Notebook" made my heart ache and yearn for the fervor felt by the engaging cast.

Duke (James Garner) cares for a lady suffering from Alzheimer's (Gena Rowlands). He reads her stories to pick up her spirits and enhance her deteriorating memories. He has read the stories to her countless times, but the Alzheimer's prevents her from remembering any detail. In her dementia-suffering mind, these are fresh new tales.

These stories revolve around Noah (Ryan Gosling, "Murder By Numbers"), a working class upstart smitten with a wealthy girl (Rachel McAdams). He tirelessly courts her to her chagrin. The enchanting girl, Allie Hamilton, succumbs to his charms and falls deeply in love. However her mother (Joan Allen) raised her daughter to be a society woman, not hooking up with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Scripted by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi, this star-crossed lover yarn is like a tea filled with milk and lemon that magically doesn't curdle. The well-worn plotline revitalizes thanks to realistic dialogue and sure-handed direction by Nick Cassavetes.

From the opening shot containing a sunset that would make Spielberg jealous to the contrast of white birds flapping toward a white house, Cassavetes paints this love story on a sparkling canvas. The reflection of the birds transposed on a window from which Rowlands stares out adds visual metaphors and a classy mood.

Cassavetes ties the past and present together with the motif of those white birds once again flocking around Gosling and McAdams in a white boat.

Garner is a consummate actor. He can take a line like "The best love is the kind that awakens your soul" and melt your heart. Rowlands, the director's mother, captures the consternation and suffering Alzheimer's inflicts on its helpless victims.

No role seems blander than of a mother who disapproves of her daughter's choices, yet Allen adds nuances and wit as the woman who loves her daughter too obsessively. Forceful but vulnerable, she should finally win her Oscar.

But it's McAdams and Gosling who turn this weepie into a heartbreaker. Noah and Allie are the couple for which love was thought up. Brimming with passion and youthful curiosity, McAdams emerges as a movie star. Once the spoiled "Hot Chick" who switched bodies with Rob Schneider, she demonstrates magnetism once found in Sandra Bullock. The longing witnessed in Gosling's eyes as he stares at his love is staggering, as if he starved himself for three months then dangled a bacon cheeseburger before him.

Smoothing the clichéd edges noteworthy in most love stories, "The Notebook" sets the mood for ardent summer nights.

Summer nights are meant for sequels -- rehashed, hack jobs that took the best elements of the first films and regurgitated to any audience's dismay (Does anyone remember when the word Matrix evoked wonderment?) So this year, Sony brought out its biggest warhorse, "Spider-Man," but they broke the rules. Not only is "Spider-Man 2" vastly cleverer than the original, but it touches the heart and soul with complex relationships and layered meanings.
Two years after the first film, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has not adapted to superhero-dom well. Like my favorite vampire slayer, Buffy, in season six, Peter finds that despite working 24-hours-a-day saving lives, no benefactor pays his rent and most of his family and friends mistakenly consider him a slacker upon whom no one can depend.

In retaliation, he focuses his energy away from his valiant responsibilities and back towards his true love, MJ (Kirsten Dunst), who has long dismissed Peter and is now engaged to an astronaut. When a physicist's experiment goes awry endangering MJ, his aunt and the entire city, Peter must select his path once and for all.

Scripted by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People," "Julia") from a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar, the artistic success of the sequel was not a fluke, but a perfectly executed masterpiece with crisp dialogue, smashing effects and a love story that make Noah and Allie from "Notebook" appear to have the sexual chemistry of Dick and Pat Nixon.

The regulars from the first film (Maguire, Dunst, JK Simmons, Rosemary Harris and James Franco) keep the material fresh and dig deeper into their characters' psyches. Wild card Alfred Molina adds menace as Dr. Octopus, a decent scientist driven insane by his serpent-like claws.

Sam Raimi directs again with glee. An avid comic book fan, he instills the film with equal parts whimsy, thrills and pathos.

The effects continue to dazzle, particularly the embodiment of Octopus. His claws react with a slithering grace of the most deadly snakes, seducing their landlord into devilish acts of terrorism. Your film is only as compelling as your villain, and Molina's hulking beast brings dread to Peter's world.

But audiences come to see Spider-Man swinging through the city like Tarzan on a sugar high. Part of the joy of both films is that Peter Parker is a man-child, buoyant and compassionate. You want him to succeed because he represents the super-kid in us all.

Unlike a gangrene green giant from last summer, this superhero actually convinces the audience to reach inside itself and give more to the world than they get. To say that "Spider-Man 2" is the best movie so far this year is an understatement; to say it belongs in the echelon of the top ten films of the new millennium is accurate. Grade: Notebook: A-; Spider Man 2: A+


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